Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Please Say No to "GMO"

Precise Science Demands Precise Nomenclature

In science and medicine, the terminology applied can be the difference between life and death, success and failure. Words have precise meanings, and a productive dialogue in the sciences requires adherence to a common set of mutually recognized terms. Shared meaning is like a verbal handshake that ensures a positive connection where information can flow.
Genetic engineering, familiarly known by the slippery colloquialism ‘GMO’, has been central to the production of drugs like insulin, enzymes used in cheese making, and laboratory-produced fibers. The widest-recognized successes have been the adoption of the technology by 20 million farmers onto almost half a billion acres of farmland, most of those in the developing world. Some 70 percent of grocery store products now contain ingredients from genetically engineered plants. And while scientists and farmers acknowledge concerns arising from the overuse of the technology, such as weed and insect resistance, there remains zero credible evidence of health-related concerns.
Still the most beautiful and altruistic applications of this technology remain to be deployed. The innovations geared to solve specific issues in hunger, environment or consumer health have not left university laboratories or government greenhouses.
This cutting edge has not been dulled due to technical problems or clandestine dangers. Instead, technology has been stalled because of high deregulation costs and negative public perception founded on misinformation.
Could part of the problem simply be the bad branding of a good technology? Our social psyche has been saturated with fear-based manufactured risk and misinformation. Could cleaning up our vocabulary advance the public’s understanding of the science and help illuminate its actual risks and benefits, while curing the tales of fear mongering?
Goodbye, “GMO”
Take for instance the abbreviation “GMO”. The term appears to have been first used thirty-three years ago this week, appropriately in the New York Times, a venue that regularly uses language to blur scientific reality in food space. Over the last decades the term has been adopted as nomenclature of derision; after all, who would want to feed their child an alien “organism”?
“GMO” is not a scientific term. Scientifically speaking, “genetic modification” is ambiguous, applying to many situations. Genetic modification is what happens upon a sexual crossing, mutation, multiplication of chromosomes (like in a seedless watermelon or banana), introduction of a single new gene from an unrelated species or the tweaking a genome with new gene editing techniques. These are all examples of genetic modification, but not all offer the predictability and precision of the process of genetic engineering.
This is why actual scientists rarely (if ever) use the “GMO” designation in technical parlance. It first regularly was highlighted in rhetoric opposing the technology, and since has sadly been adopted by mainstream media. Works that apply the term tend to disparage the technology, and opt for “GMO” rather than a scientifically precise term to stoke the negative perception.
For instance, the term “GMO” is prominently presented in the 2012 publication (retracted) by French biologist Gilles-Erich Seralini and colleagues, juxtaposed with tumor-ridden suffering animals. Their intent was to label the sad and grotesque figures of suffering animals with the three letters, G-M-O. A valid scientific effort would have labeled a figure with the gene installed that made the plant unique, not a catch-all term for an engineered plant. Seralini’s work met tremendous outcry from a scientific community that saw this as being a political and manipulative use of the scientific literature to advance an agenda.
The use of the term “GMO” in the figures is consistent with that interpretation.
In order to help advance the public discussion, we should agree to abandon the meaningless term “GMO”. This is especially important for academics, scientists, farmers, dietitians and physicians — professionals the public relies upon to answer questions about food and farming.
It is time for the science-minded community to adopt a common vocabulary to enhance effective discussion and enjoy more meaningful dialogue.
Toward a new phrasebook
Here are my suggestions for how we can adopt a common vocabulary to make sure we’re all speaking the same language about these technologies.
1. Stop using “GMO”. It is imprecise. Everything not arising as a clone is genetically modified from previous forms, as is anything changed by mutation. You are a unique genetic modification of your parent’s combined genes. A dachshund is a genetic modification of an ancestral gray wolf.
Instead we should replace “GMO” with “Genetic Engineering.” Genetic engineering is adding, subtracting, or adjusting genes in the lab that change a trait in the resulting plant, animal or microbe. It satisfies the very definition of engineering — the application of science and mathematics to affect properties of matter or the sources of energy in nature to be made useful to people.

The term GMO term is intended to detract from the precision of the science.

However, the term “GMO” is something people recognize. Effective communication depends on shared meaning, so scientists or journalists should use the term once in a presentation or article parenthetically, then switch to genetic engineering. Experts should make it clear that “GMO” is not an acceptable term when discussing science.
The flawed “GMO” must also still be included in keywords, image tags, or in any online content. If it is not present, someone searching the internet for credible information with this non-scientific term may encounter a higher proportion of scientifically questionable information. Providing a parenthetical mention or brief reference ensures that those seeking science-based answers can find them.
2. An All-Encompassing Term. A better term for the scientific processes used to produce new varieties or breeds, or the intermediate steps, would be best referred to as crop or animal genetic improvement. In other words, when we use traditional breeding methods to make plants or animals better, it takes many steps and lots of selection. That’s genetic improvement, whether it is done by sexual exchange, breaking DNA strands with radiation or doubling chromosomes with chemistry.
3. The Newest Technologies. New technologies are now being used that allow scientists to make incredibly specific changes to DNA sequence, without leaving foreign DNA sequences (that some find objectionable) behind. These techniques should be collectively referred to as gene editing. Especially avoid referring to the technology by its technical name like “CRISPR/Cas 9” or “TALEN”, which are specific types of gene editing. It is important because the list of gene editing methods is inevitably growing. Gene editing is also more precise than the often used genome editing.

The hierarchy of plant genetic improvement techniques. Those techniques mediated through the laboratory should be noted as “genetic engineering” even though gene editing and traditional breeding may result in identical final products. These are methods of improvement, and do not speak to the safety or efficacy of the final products produced.

The purpose of this brief new glossary is not to provide a mandate based on my narrow experience and observations. Instead, my goal is to offer a proposal so a scientific community eager to precisely engage the public can challenge the pros and cons of these terms to hone an optimal vocabulary. My hope is to ultimately derive an agreed-upon terminology that can be adopted and consistently applied by experts in science, medicine and agriculture. Journalists and science communications may then adopt the precise wording of the discipline for improved precision in communication.
Concrete, unambiguous terms can help curious and concerned people understand the realities of genetic engineering. Certainly medicine has benefited from precise language, such as how childhood cognitive disabilities are now characterized with greater sensitivity and improved medical precision. This change improved social stigma of various developmental disorders, brought compassionate understanding to the conditions, and enhanced treatment for those affected.
Better scientific literacy and precision in terminology around genetic engineering would lead to a more productive discourse that ultimately could enable more rapid deployment of safe technologies that can help people and the planet. The individuals that insist on adhering to antiquated, divisive and imprecise terms will be automatically characterized as antiquated, divisive and imprecise.
The first step is to stop using the archaic, imprecise term “GMO”.

Monday, May 22, 2017

How Activists Use Taxpayers to Attack Scientists

Jonathan Jarry from the Body of Evidence Podcast provides outstanding insight into the recent US-RTK-driven allegations against Dr. Peter Phillips at the University of Saskatchewan.  The industry-funded activist group used CBC Saskatoon to deliver a baseless hit piece that attempts to tarnish a respected scholar.  Jarry unveils how these attacks work. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Should Hydroponic Production be Eliminated "Organic" Consideration?

Hydroponic cultivation is considered to be an important technology in the future production of some specialty crops in urban centers.  The concept is simple.  Indoor farms offer the capacity to grow high-value specialty crops in confined, climate controlled space.  They repurpose poorly-used city space, and hire skilled and unskilled workers in population centers. 

Most of all, these operations limit the carbon footprint of specialty crop production, which now does not need long-distance transportation.  In some cases the plant products can ease the deficiencies associated with fresh fruit and vegetable scarcity in urban food deserts, areas under-served by large produce retailers. 

Dr. Wan Feng describes the effects of bioponic organic fertilizers on lettuce production in a hydroponic system.  While no synthetic chemicals are used, it may not be sold as "organic". Photo from ICCEA Panama, May 17, 2017.

In many cases producers are able to grow crops without pesticides, as they can control environmental conditions to deter fungal and bacterial pathogens.  Insects may not be an issue in a carefully devised controlled environment.  These realities seem to match the values and goals of organic crop production. 

But hydroponic growers were not allowed to obtain organic certification because they use synthetic fertilizers. Delivery of proper amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium and needed micronutrients are best delivered by providing them in the liquid media as precisely mixed by fertilizer manufacturers.

Innovative growers started to use alternative sources of fertilizers in a hope to be able to market their carefully-grown crops as organic. They began introducing fertilizer concoctions derived from animal and plant waste, with some success.  The products are more difficult to use, sometimes produce a bad smell, but generally work as an alternative to prepared fertilizers.

Still, in 2016, the  Organic Standards  indicated that these methods would not be allowed to have the organic classification. 

This is yet another example that illuminates the arbitrary nature of what falls under the 'organic' designation.  

If the goal is to produce more with less, to mitigate the use of synthetic pesticides, and to provide a high-value crop for farmers-- why would this technology be forbidden?  It is a lot like how transgenic crops are disallowed categorically for use in organic cultivation.  

Technologies that cut costs for farmers, lessen impact on the environment, and provide better food for people (even more than existing organic standards) should be included in the organic designation.  

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Distinguished Researcher Under Activist Attack

Professor Peter Phillips from the University of Saskatchewan is accused of dirty collusion with Monsanto.  Confiscated emails were stripped of quotations that could be used against him-- read the emails, learn the story, get mad.  This is a good man under activist attack, and shows what these merchants of doubt are all about. 

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Talking Biotech #81 - Potatoes- Past, Present and Future

This week's podcast is an interview with Dr. David Douches of Michigan State University. David is a traditional potato breeder that explains how wild traits can be moved to improve our rather limited landscape of varieties.  We then talk about biotech traits and efforts being used to create more resistant varieties that can cut dependence on fungicides and other crop protection strategies. 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

A Tearful Graduation

April 29th was marked on my calendar for a long time.  It was graduation in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. As Chair of a department I'm part of the platform party, the folks that sit on the stage during the event. 

Many folks look at such university events as a chore. It is Saturday night, you have to wear that skull-squeezing mortarboard and the toasty regalia.  Parking is impossible and you're pretty much staying on campus for the night. 

And it could not be more wonderful. 

It means a lot to me. 

Because they tried to take it away. 

My view from the stage - graduates and their families gather to celebrate. 
It is an emotional time, because I almost lost this.

In 2015 I endured a painful personal and professional attack that almost drove me out of science.  Over the last 17 years I've been glad to talk to the public about genetic engineering, and that bothers those that profit from fighting it.  

Activist organizations used FOIA laws to gather my emails and develop false and damaging stories about me that were not true. Some were pulled because they were false.  Others were printed in the nation's most credible papers, even though they were lies. 

The false information moved quickly through legitimate media. I was branded as a scandal-clad patsy, and words like "corruption", "liar" and "scandal" were thrown around next to my name. 


When you dedicate your career to serving others and doing the right thing, such allegations cut hard.  The reputation damage hits like a mallet.  I don't have kids, I don't have much of a life outside of the research I do and the people I serve, the students I teach, the scientists I guide.

I almost quit.  I was contacted by folks in industry with attractive offers to leave academia.  The salaries were crazy big and opportunities interesting. 

Ironically, while some were calling me a "paid shill" -- I was turning down an opportunity to seize personal compensation and peace, because I wanted to fight for public science. 

I was frustrated by the science writers that wrote before looking at evidence.  Even those that I admired threw me under the bus. A few stepped up and dug deeper, then turned to my defense. 

It was the kindness of strangers that helped pull me through. 

Monday, May 1, 2017

Mother Nature, Genetic Engineer -- The Sweet Potato

We broadly place potatoes into one of two categories-- sweet potatoes, and the other kind.  But what are the differences? What are the breeding priorities and opportunities?

Episode 80 of the Talking Biotech Podcast visits with Dr. Jan Kreuze from the International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima, Peru. Dr. Kreuze discusses what a sweet potato is, it's genetic origins, and why it is an example of natural genetic engineering. 

A DNA insertion event, from the same bacteria used in the lab, placed DNA into the genome in a way that changed domestication traits. In other words, humans found benefit because of the insertion. 

The episode raises important questions about what it means to be genetically engineered, relative risk, and the true need for labeling-- someone nobody is too worried about the sweet potato. 

Glyphosate and School Lunches